2013 Bumblebee season begins

It's all been rather quiet for the start of 2013 on our bumblebee project due to our new baby project! We were thrilled to introduce Edan to the world in February, and have been very busy since taking good care of him and feeding him every few hours night and day!

I have to admit that last year's lodge is still needing to be cleaned and I haven't fully decided whether to source a colony for study this year or just rely on trying to encourage natural nesting. The other complexity is that my CCTV monitoring room is now Edan's bedroom and I haven't figured out anywhere suitable for all the CCTV equipment, other than perhaps the garage.

Anyway, it's been a moot point, as the bees themselves have been very slow to emerge after all the cold snowy weather we've been having through February and March. I'm sure there were a few false starts for some of them, but we've only seen our first bufftailed queens in the last week.

This weekend was a turning point for the weather and I was able to get out into the garden to cut and shape the grass (more on that later) and also create some more potential nest sites. It's remarkable to think that this time last year we had 21 new queens itching to leave the nest and yet this year we are only just seeing hibernating queens coming out and looking to set up home.

The other remarkable thing is that today alone I saw 9 queens in the garden looking for a nest site. (At least two were there together, so granted it could be two bees who made 9 visit to the garden in total). This is unprecedented - we are used to seeing 1 every few days. It leads me to wonder whether a) their normal habitat has been destroyed or rendered less suitable or b) whether these are our own queens coming back to where they were born; indeed, most of them explored the area where the nest had been sited on the stones by the garage wall.

Anyway - a quick run down of what I've done to create additional nest environments - since all the bees I've seen are definitely looking at ground level and digging down, I figured I needed to do something different to my above-ground boxes - I.e some underground cavities.

Transient

First, the grass has been cut (or more correctly, left) in strips that lead to the existing boxes. The bumblebees love to search in the long grass for possible burrow holes and explore the linear edges as a guide - so the strips naturally lead the bumbles to the entrances for the existing boxes (which are tubes hidden in moss).

Transient
Transient

Next, I have created two underground nest sites, inspired by the buried teapot idea. First is a plastic tub, upside down (thus waterproof) with a tube running down into it. The turf on top can be removed for observation if necessary, and I packed some stones and bedding inside. Any bee that chooses to explore that tube is going to find a 5 star residence!

Whilst packing all my tools away after burying the tub I spotted the baby formula tubs we were sending for recycling. I immediately thought that these two would make great underground cavities, being moisture proof and with a handy clippable lid that would also serve well as an observation hatch. So, today I buried one of those, again running a tube into it and packing it with some stones and bedding and moss.
I tried to make the entrances look authentic with some grass cuttings, but will need to let the surrounding lawn grow to encourage searching.

Here's a picture of the two boxes together.

Transient

So, now with underground and on-ground sorted it was time to deal with above-ground. So, I have placed a blue-tit bird box on the fence about a metre above ground - again packing it with bedding material. I've heard numerous folk talk of their blue-tit bird boxes being chosen for bee nests, so I'm hopeful ours will too.

So, looking forward to the next week to see if we get more queens and if they discover what we've laid on for them! :-)


Weekend Catchup (1st Beepol Weekend)

Infrastructure

I made some minor infrastructure modifications this weekend. We noticed that the smaller, new bumblebees didn't seem to find the new wax moth flap system on the lodge as easy as we had hoped, despite it being slightly wedged open with blutac. It was easy for them to leave, but on return we noticed that they showed more interest in trying to get into the nest at the lodge lid join (smell?) rather than via the open flap. I have to say, this is slightly baffling when the entrance hole is easily accessible. 

In order to aid memorisation and detection of the entrance, I added some bright yellow tape and blue marking on the entrance flap, in case its transparency was causing an issue:

modifications to lodge entranceWe'll remove the blutac when there is a sufficient in-flow/out-flow of bees that they can learn from and assist each other working the flap. This way we'll slowly train the.

We also noticed that memorisation procedure was also taking in more of our other features in the garden, particularly the nestboxes and associated features. This stands to reason, since we have created that environment to be highly visible and attractive to queens. I wanted to make sure that we didn't inadvertently confuse our new bumbles; for example, into trying to return to one of the other nest boxes. To that end I painted a clear white line upto our lodge. Last year we painted a runway for fun - but since bumeblebees use linear features and markings for navigation, this clearly has a useful function for them. This should ensure that the bumbles are able to return to the lodge reliably, even if they are a little confused by the flap when they get there!

linear navigation feature for beepol lodge

Queen Catching

The weather has been all over the place this weekend - despite being sunny at times it never got above 11C on saturday and about 7C on Sunday. Nonetheless I went out queen hunting, if only to survey activity. 

 

  • Saturday: captured 1 redtail very quickly 15:45 - and placed in pilkington box. She stayed in the capture tube, so much so I put the whole tube in there! Eventually left the box sunday. (QB2012-12)
  • Saturday:  captured a second redtail at 16:30 - she was very placid, probably happy to bed down; went in box 1 very quickly and stayed there still all night, eventually leaving 11am Sunday. She did no memorisation so she won't be back. (QB2012-13)
  • Sunday: I went out about 13:30. It had been sunny but, of course, as I left started to drizzle, eventually hail! Didn't think I'd find much but caught (and lost) a redtail, saw another redtail and bufftail and then eventually caught a bufftail. She also went into box 1, but I didn't observe her leaving. (QB2012-14)

 

QB2012-13 Redtail resting overnightOn saturday I noticed a few bumblebees out resting and also looking for places to rest, rather than nest. The one in this photo took quite a while exploring this piece of ground. I couldn't understand why as it is not good nest-location ground, but in the end she settled down just to rest. I was intrigued to see how she aligned herself with the features on the ground, as if to achieve better camouflage. (stripe lined up with the white/brown twig; thorax in the shadow). Coincidence or camouflage? It's an intriguing question, but I have a strong feeling that bumbles can use their markings as camouflage and I'm trying to collect as much evidence of this as possible. 

resting queen - coincidence or camouflage?

Nest Activity

For the first few days of the hive, activity levels inside seemed high but we had very few bees showing any interest in the outside world. I think some of those that did may have been lost, as we've not seen many return - although to be fair at this stage I'm not fully tracking all exits & return trips. 

There's quite a range of sizes in the nest - small workers at under 10mm ranging up to some that appear to be twice the size. We have seen one or two seemingly enormous bees on the internal camera, which I am still trying to get a good picture of, to establish if we might have seen the queen.

Finally today (Sunday 15th April) we've seen much more interest in the outside world, although they have picked a lousy day for it! (about 6C - 7C, rain and hail showers, and very windy) Nontheless, some of the tiny bumbles have been bringing pollen back, the first time we've seen that.  There still appears to be some confusion about finding the entrance hole, even with the flap wedged up, so we'll just have to keep an eye on that and ensure none get "stranded" outside the nest. 

Here's a wee one performing memorisation on her first flight.

performing memorisation during first flight from beepol lodge

Audio Frequencies

This year I've started sampling audio frequencies under certain situations to see if there is any pattern - it's purely exploratory at the moment. We've found a queen buzzing at almost a perfect middle C3 (130Hz). 

We noticed during the night the colony, while still busy is a lot quietier and when accompanied by crackling sounds (hatching) there is a single sustained note (often 30 seconds or more in length, repeatedly), so far measured at 180Hz.

During the hail storm today, the bumblees went crazy! A high pitched synchronised sustained buzz, almost like a scream, at between 400Hz and 500Hz. We'll do our best to capture more data to determine any patterns. 

Expanding on the Expanding foam

It was a great day again on Sunday so I took the opportunity to wield the expanding foam again. The plan was to do two things:

 

  • modify our "triple 3-into-1 tube" set of fake entrances to be covered in moss and look more realistic - with the entrance holes much more vertical standing so they can be seen easily from above. 
  • create an additional nest site from an old poster tube - the idea was to site this amongst the longer grass where the bumblebees have been nest searching, to make it look like a mossy embankment. 

 

It was all very easy - I've documented the steps in pictures below.

First i made a cardboard base for the "nest tube" and covered it in "bin bag" plastic. The plastic will go face down, to stop the cardboard getting damp and rotting. The top side will be protected by the expanding foam. 

 

I separated the two ends of tube by packing it with moss and a little hamster bedding. To create a slightly different environment, favoured by different species of bumbles I put a little more bedding in one end and stones in the other. 
contents of one end of the tube
As an extra precaution I fed 10mm tubing into the end of the pipe, to create extra ventilation (and potentially an inspection pathway). 
ventilation & access tube
I stuck the pipe to the base with gaffer tape. As ever I included a thermometer, down into the centre of the tube. Soft drink bottle bases cover the ends. It ended up looking like some kind of crazy bomb. I can assure you it's perfectly safe. ☺
assembled nest tube, with thermometer, before foam is added
Next the fun (and messy bit) - cover the tube in expanding foam. As is started to dry (about 15 minutes) I spray painted it dark brown (mud / earth colour). Looks like a nice cake! ☺
nest tube covered in expanding foam
As it continued to dry, but still a little tacky, I covered in moss, collected earlier in the week. 
moss layer completed
The placed amongst the longer grass. Not sure how I can make it any more real than this, other than actually digging up the lawn! The dark patch on the right hand side is of particular interest. 
final site of nest tube in long grass

Next, the same trick for our "3 into 1" tubing, which goes to a nest box. I made a cardboard wedge from an old box and waterproofed the same way. Note, I poked drain holes along the tubes. 

 

3-way tube being prepped for foam
Then the foam, as before. The two uppermost pipes are fake.. they are blocked off - just there for additional effect. 
foam added
Again, spray painted brown, then the moss added while tacky.
triple tube, covered in moss..
Here's a view of the two systems in place along the central line we have created down the garden. Bumblebees like to navigate along linear features, often edges (e.g. gravel / grass edge, or crop edge). Our flags and long grass creates the linear feature (and actually shows some signs of working!).
tubes in situ, leading to small nest box
Close up of the 3-into-1 tubes. We are experimenting with one yellow entrance. We do not really expect interest in this, because the Queens tend to think it is a flower, not a hole. But the experiment will see how rigidly they stick to this basic understanding. You can see the nestbox that the tubes lead to. 
close up. 
Finally a view of the entire feature.
full setup - with clear linear featureOur next job will be to simplify the clutter along the left of the picture - the edge is not sufficiently defined and we think the plants (mainly heather) are too close to the nest areas. We'll move them to the cloche area and again try to create a strong linear feature along the lawn edge.
BCW saw 3or 4 queens nest searching in the garden today. They had slightly improved interest in our setup, but not enough to fully explore any of the entrances. We'll get there!

Gone but not forgotten...

This post is a day late because I didn't get chance yesterday - and is a quick update on the Queen (QB2012-06) we introduced to the nest on Saturday night (March 24th). We introduced her to the box around 4.15pm (GMT as it was then) and after 2 hours is what clear she was going to stay the night. 

We placed the capture tube against the entrance of the nestbox and she was quick to enter, mooching about while we loosened the moss in the end of the tube; we left it in place up against the box.  

I also set up the cameras so they would record her leaving in the morning. 

On Sunday morning I got up (clocks went forward, so I was groggy!) and it looked like the moss had been dislodged so I assumed she had gone. I checked several hours of footage, nothing, so I was a bit baffled, but assumed she must have broken out before sunrise (which bothered me).

Anyway, later we decided to see what she'd done to the bedding, so had a look through the red filter about midday, and she was still in there! Now I was worried because this meant she probably hadn't been able to break out as I thought; and now she was scratching at the air vents.

So, as a test I changed the capture tube for the narrow, longer piping (about 50cm), but she still showed no interest, I think not enough light coming down it. So, in the end I changed it again for our short 'funnel' made from the head of a bottle and she soon emerged.

She walked out, probably a bit hungry! And spent nearly 30 minutes foraging on our heather and wandering about, preening on our gravel and generally getting back into shape. We may have stressed her a little more than we intended, so we figured we'd go a lot easier on the moss (consequently today two queens escaped before even going into the box, but that's ok, I'd rather it was that way). Always a learning process!

I'm convinced this queen flew back again twice, she actually seemed to have an interest in the same piece of garage wall on all three occasions and followed same flight path. But who knows?

It was a beautiful day, so I went out again today and caught a redtail (QB2012-07) and a bufftail (QB2012-08). Redtail got away by breaking out from the moss end of the tube before entering the box - this is fine; better that than undue stress. We placed the bufftail at about 4:50pm (remember, the clocks went forward so sunset has moved to 7:30pm) and observed for well over an hour and she stayed in the box. We made sure she could easily escape - just attaching 50cm tubing unhindered to the outside world - although it's quite dark, perhaps not obvious as an exit at first. 

I actually didn't see many nest searching today, they were all resting in the warm late afternoon sun.  Quite a lot of bumbles actually: carders, bufftailed, redtail... But mainly I saw them all foraging and resting, barely any nest searching. 

I checked the cameras this morning from about 6.20am non-stop to about midday and saw nothing of our Queen. Eventually BCW had a look in the box and she was not there. I think therefore that she didn't stay the night, but actually snuck out about 6.30pm when we decided to eat. In a way it's good, because it meant she discovered and used the long thin tube. She didn't come back today though, so we just have to keep a lookout for any of the queens returning a later date if they liked the box.

BCW also made some adjustments to the box - to flatten the bedding a bit to improve the camera view and to provide some sugar water in the box. We're really happy with the setup now.  

 

not all flags and fake tubes

Every day I think I've finished our bumblebee setup, and every day I come up with something new. ☺

So, today I was lying in bed thinking I need more flags! When I say "flags",  I mean the fake flowers we made the other day. It occured to me we could use them mroe constructively to bring the exploring bumbles nearer to our nest entrances, and possibly train them to a degree by offering a reward if they follow them. It's well established that (honey) bees can be trained -e.g. to detect explosives and bumbleebees are trained during lab experiments. 

Anyway - I decided to create a row of flags leading to the boxes; to extend one above our garden wall so it is visible from outside the garden, and to flag each entrance to a nestbox. Anyway,  here are the pictures of the set up. 

descending row of hi-viz flags

 

flags by each of the nest entrance tubes

There is a small reward on some of the flags, by way of some sugar water. This may train any bumblebees to keep visiting the yellow flags, which will ultimately draw them nearer to the nest box entrances. 

row of flags approaching the nest boxes

I also decided that it might be useful to bury some more entrance tubes in the lawn. These don't go anywhere, but are intended just to be highly visible to Queens and give them a reason to explore the garden. By having more, there's a greater chance they will spot one in passing and investigate, thus increasing the chance of spotting others. 

fake entrance tube - using hi-vis tape for contrast

 

high flag on pussy willow - visible from outside the garden

Of course, it wasn't all flags and fake tubes today - I also had a spare input on the camera system which I wanted to use more productively. Usually it is just a wide view of the garden - more of a "security" camera view, but I had a spare "bullet cam" that was fixed to the house wall down low. I removed that and attached it to a nice big rock which I got from my parent's garden in the highlands. This gives me the flexibilty to move the camera wherever needed. Note the high-tech waterproofing! ☺

rock cam!

"Rock Cam" now provides the view seen in the very bottom right hand window of the screen, shown in "mission control" below. (Colour image). The three smaller images around it are from the nestboxes. And the three larger images are from the beepol lodge, which doesn't have its colony yet. 

the view from mission control with all cams installed

We can also get the "mission control" view on our iPhones and iPad, anywhere in the world. We can zoom into individual pictures if needed and get sound from the onboard camera microphones. 

remote viewing on iPhone

After all the setup, we went out and were quite quickly able to catch a couple of Queen in succession. We have a new capture technique (to be described later) and tried the first queen in the right hand box (box 3). It wasn't very successful and after a while she worked her way out of the capture tube (which we allowed to happen). So, we revised our tactics slightly and I was able to catch a big beautiful bufftailed queen. 

This time we introduced her to box 2 - the "pilkington" box (brown, centre) and she went in no bother. She too would have been able to get out if she wanted, by removing moss in the capture tube, but she actually stayed in the box. By the time 2 hours had passed, it had gone sunset, so she would not have left anyway due to the low light - so I'm pleased to say she has stayed overnight. 

We fully expect her to leave tomorrow morning - the question is, whether she finds the location desirable and memorises it for a future return. We'll set the CCTV to try and record her exit to see if she does. 

Queen in residenceAbove is the picture of the setup with the queen in residence. The capture tube is covered in a cloth to stop any stray light, but she can exit via the moss filled end if she wants. We added lots of daffodils so that there is immediate nearby food (and also to attract other bees to the garden, which worked: we have a redtail on them within 5 minutes). 

redtail queen on our newly added daffodilsSo, we now wait to see what tomorrow morning brings for our overnight guest... 

QB2012-06 in the nestbox overnight